Kenenisa Bekele: “[2:01:41] Is Not Enough. I Want More”

Even at 40, Bekele is still motivated by the marathon world record, but even he knows it won't come in Sunday's TCS London Marathon

By Jonathan Gault
September 30, 2022

LONDON -- Kenenisa Bekele doesn't need to still be doing this. His elite running career, now in its third decade, has contained more success than almost anyone in history -- three Olympic medals, 16 world titles (11 in cross country, five in outdoor track, one in indoor track), and world records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters that stood for a decade and a half. He has made boatload of money. And he has run faster in the marathon than any human who ever lived save Eliud Kipchoge, a man whose marathon career Bekele will never surpass.

So what drives Bekele, who turned 40 in June, to keep going with a marathon career that has featured mostly frustration interspersed with brief flashes of brilliance?

"My plan," Bekele says simply, speaking exclusively to LetsRun.com upon arrival in England on Friday afternoon, two days out from his appearance at the TCS London Marathon.

That plan -- to break the world record -- is the same one that has motivated him since he debuted with a win at the Paris Marathon in April 2014.

In recent years, however, that plan has grown....

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Even at 40, Bekele is still motivated by the marathon world record, but even he knows it won’t come in Sunday’s TCS London Marathon

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By Jonathan Gault
September 30, 2022

LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele doesn’t need to still be doing this. His elite running career, now in its third decade, has contained more success than almost anyone in history — three Olympic medals, 16 world titles (11 in cross country, five in outdoor track, one in indoor track), and world records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters that stood for a decade and a half. He has made boatload of money. And he has run faster in the marathon than any human who ever lived save Eliud Kipchoge, a man whose marathon career Bekele will never surpass.

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So what drives Bekele, who turned 40 in June, to keep going with a marathon career that has featured mostly frustration interspersed with brief flashes of brilliance?

“My plan,” Bekele says simply, speaking exclusively to LetsRun.com upon arrival in England on Friday afternoon, two days out from his appearance at the TCS London Marathon.

(Bob Martin for London Marathon Events)

That plan — to break the world record — is the same one that has motivated him since he debuted with a win at the Paris Marathon in April 2014.

In recent years, however, that plan has grown increasingly improbable. The mark to beat has dropped by over two minutes in the seven years since Bekele’s debut, from Wilson Kipsang‘s 2:03:23 to Kipchoge’s 2:01:09 in Berlin on Sunday. And since running his 2:01:41 personal best in Berlin three years ago — missing Kipchoge’s then-world record by just two seconds — Bekele has withdrawn from as many marathons as he has finished (two). Had the 2:06:47 he ran last year in Berlin, his fastest marathon in the last three years, been attached to any other athlete’s name, no one would seriously consider that individual as a threat to the world record.

And yet, he persists. Because Bekele is stubborn. His motivation has waxed and waned, but his marathon career will not feel complete without being able to call himself the world record holder. He remains an artist in search of his signature work.

“I want to do something over marathon,” Bekele says. “I want to [have] some result, good result.”

When I mention to Bekele that his 2:01:41 in Berlin might qualify as a signature performance, he pushes back.

“That is not enough,” Bekele says. “I want more.”

Do you think the world record, even though it’s 2:01:09 — Bekele does not allow me to even finish the question. As soon as he hears the words “world record,” he moves to cut me off.

“Of course,” Bekele says. “Of course.”

Embed from Getty Images

That world record will not come this Sunday, however, in his first London Marathon start since 2018. Not even Bekele is bold enough to predict that. Sunday is about winning, a goal that carries extra motivation for Bekele given the Ethiopian-heavy elite field in London. A world record attempt, if it is to come, will have to wait until 2023 at the earliest (Bekele would not offer any hints when asked about retirement, simply responding “no one knows”).

So let’s talk about this year. It didn’t begin auspiciously for Bekele, who signed up to run the Boston Marathon in April but was forced to scratch from the race after an injury to his hip/lower back prevented him from logging enough quality training during his buildup. Since then, Bekele has gradually ramped up his training. He made his traditional visit to his management’s headquarters in Nijmegen in July, spending a month and a half there receiving physiotherapy and nutrition advice. More recently, on September 11 Bekele ran 61:01 to finish 3rd at the Great North Run.

There are two ways to view that result. The positive: it was Bekele’s first half marathon (and just third race, period) in the last two years. Sustaining 61:01 pace for 13.1 miles shows Bekele is healthy and (at least somewhat) fit.

The negative: 61:01 on an aided, point-to-point course doesn’t mean all that much anymore when the world record is 57:01 and 2:03 marathons are commonplace. If you’re one of the top 10 marathoners in the world, a 61:01 half should be a breeze.

Bekele, for his part, says it was “not a bad result.” He missed some training leading into the race and did not taper at all for it — his focus was not on that race, only on London.

“I was not 100% ready for that race,” Bekele says. “That’s why the race was a little bit difficult for me.”

Bekele says things have improved in the last three weeks — he claims to be 100% now — but that may be optimistic. There is only so much fitness one can gain in three weeks, particularly once one starts tapering for a marathon.

No one, not even Bekele, knows quite what to expect on Sunday. History says it does not pay to overhype Bekele’s chances, so I won’t. He probably isn’t going to win. Heck, even getting on the podium would be a result to be proud of at his age. The masters world record of 2:06:25 is also there for the taking (though his manager Jos Hermens advises me not to even broach the subject — Bekele doesn’t want to think about age-group world records as long as the overall WR remains his aim).

These are the realistic targets for Bekele at this point in his career. But for as long as Bekele continues as a professional athlete, he is unlikely to chase those sort of goals. For Bekele, anything with a qualifier — finishing in the top 3, running an age-group record — does not hold much of an appeal when you know how it feels to stand atop the distance running world.

The best way to think of it may be (and I can’t believe I’m about to do this) to channel Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.

Bekele keeps getting older. His goals stay the same.

***

Watch Bekele’s full pre-race interview with LetsRun.com below

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MB: Does Bekele break Kipchoge’s London record? Update: Bekele tells Letsrun he still wants the WR.

More: London Marathon M Preview: Who Will Win a Deep Race with No Clear Favorite? A record six sub-2:04 men will battle in London on Sunday. Does Kenenisa Bekele have anything left? Will Sisay Lemma repeat? Can “Bronze Man” Bashir Abdi win his first major? We break down the men’s field. *MB: London Marathon men’s predictions. Jonathan Gault says the 2022 London winner will be…..

*Full 2022 London Marathon Coverage with full race previews, tv and streaming information, etc.

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